“My son has 30 to 40 Snapchat Streaks. Is that normal? And, also, what are Snapchat Streaks?”
The mom sitting in my office was like a lot of parents whose children are on Snapchat. She knew he was spending a lot of time on his phone, but she had very little idea about what he was doing. She had once tried to download the app to figure out how to use it, but gave up after ten minutes when it didn’t seem intuitive. Even though she knew he was sending Snaps, posting to his Stories, and maintaining 30 to 40 streaks, she didn’t know what any of that meant. Given that he had so many Snapchat Streaks, I knew her son likely spent over 30 minutes each day on the app. For users under 25 years of age, this is typical, as users within this demographic spent on average more than 30 minutes on the app each day according to usage metrics taken during October to December 2016. Founded in 2011 by several Stanford students, Snapchat’s parent company, Snap Inc. recently celebrated a successful IPO, and is incredibly popular among today’s dream demographic of 13- to 24-year-olds.
Among teens and young adults, Snapchat is popular because it understands what teens want in the social media world; fun, quick, and casual interactions. Teens tell me they send Snaps to friends while walking to class, and it feels like a more casual form of messaging. For many parents and more established educators, Snapchat seems less intuitive (and kids like it that way!). But there are some key things for parents and educators to know:
There’s no denying the rapid growth of Snapchat, which currently has around 160 million active daily users. Users send approximately 2.5 billion photos, messages, and videos every day – and the average user opens the app nearly 18 times per day. On Snapchat, users can send Snaps (photos, videos, and/or text) directly to others on their friends’ list, or post photos or videos to their Snapchat Story for others to view.
There’s a reason why teens love Snapchat – it is not just quick and fun to use, users feel as though they can share their own Story and cultivate their own ever-changing online presence without pressure to be perfect. The key is that nothing seems to stick around for very long. Snaps – the short-hand term given for these photos and messages sent to friends – seem to “disappear” within seconds of getting opened (though nothing really disappears), and their ephemeral nature makes many users feel like Snapchat allows them to express their real selves. The seeming lack of permanence makes users more comfortable to send a Snap or post to their Stories without over-thinking it. Photos and videos posted on Stories go away after 24 hours, encouraging users to constantly post new content while also feeling less pressure to over-curate their postings.
Another reason users love Snapchat is that there is no search feature, so they can’t search for others’ postings. Why is this important? Because there is no underlying competition to see how many likes a photo received or how many followers another user has.
And it is not just teenagers who love to Snap. According to comScore, over 75 percent of users with smartphones use Snapchat monthly, making it a popular social networking tool for young adults as well. Parents should be aware that although Snapchat requires users to be 13 years old as per COPPA (“Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act”) laws, users self-report their ages – so younger kids can (and do) use the app.
There’s a seduction to casual messaging.
A 16-year-old high school junior explained it this way, “It’s a lot easier and more casual to send someone a Snap or add them to your friend list on Snapchat then it is to send someone a text.” She, like many of her classmates, see Snaps as a casual way of saying hello to friends, or making sure they don’t, as one high school junior boy explained, “forget about you.”
Part of Snapchat’s brilliance is how it has gamified messaging. Though Snaps seem to disappear after a certain number of seconds, users can send creative snaps by applying features to their snaps, such as adding a regional or holiday background, using the facial recognition software to apply animated facial filters (a popular one is what students in my office call “the dog filter”) and even face swap with another person that’s in the Snap with them. These features create a fun way of checking in with friends.
But the casualness and gamification can come at a cost. Younger users might act impulsively and post things on their Stories that they would likely not share publicly, not recognizing how easily a screenshot can capture a post and be shared widely. Even parents who think they are in the know might not be. One 16-year-old high school sophomore explained that she blocks her parents, brother, and cross country coaches from seeing her Stories, and that they are unaware they have been blocked.
Be reassured (or forewarned), nothing really ever fully disappears on Snapchat. Over the past several years, the company has put a number of parameters in place, including a law enforcement guide, to discourage cyberbullying and inappropriate content.
There are underlying friendship dynamics that make things complicated.
In a world where tweens and teens can feel as though likes and comments are a measure of popularity, teens have mentioned how much they like that Snaps don’t receive public likes or mentions. There’s also no search feature to look at and discover others’ postings, so it seems like a more intimate, casual way of communicating.
Still, the underlying social dynamics (and confusion) are real. For instance, Snapchat Streaks can contribute to what I call “friendship bloat.” Snapstreaks are formed when two users send each other at least one Snap a day – and the Snap is broken if someone doesn’t respond to a Snap within a 24 hour period. One high school sophomore girl told me she had a 279 day Snapstreak with a girl she met freshman year who she is no longer friends with, but both of them have kept the streak going.
Snapstreaks are likely the most brilliantly addictive feature for teens – I’ve had several students voluntarily delete all apps off their phone (including Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube) in an attempt to minimize distractions, but they refuse to delete Snapchat because they don’t want to be the one to break their Streaks. In a quiet, insidious way, Snapstreaks have made it impossible for most active teen users to go a single day without using the app.
From a time and energy perspective, Snapstreaks can add up – some teens become efficient and send the same Snap to all their Streaks, and others personalize. Either way, it quickly adds up to a whole lot of minutes.
It’s all about emojis.
It’s not just Snaps, Stories, and Streaks that have gamified communication as we know it. Snapchat also uses emojis to track users messaging habits with their friends, and different emojis represent different levels of Snap interaction. For example. a smirk indicates that the user is your best friend (signified by number of Snaps sent to them) but that the best friends status isn’t reciprocated – as in, they are sending someone else more Snaps. Complicated. The fire emoji signifies a Snapstreak, and a red heart signifies being one another’s best friend for at least two weeks. These emojis indicate how much interaction the users have between each other, signifying how much of a “best friend” the users are to each other. The emoji situation can be precarious – because they can change or disappear over time based on your relationship to them and their relationship to you, and can disappear altogether if users don’t maintain communication.
For those users who are motivated by points and numbers, Snapchat scores create another incentive to engage. Snapchat scores are determined by adding up the total number of Snaps sent out and received by the user, and the number can be found right below a user’s screen name. The more active the user, the higher the score. As a note, scores can only be seen between two Snapchat users who have added one another as friends. So, if a user follows a celebrity or another other person who doesn’t add them back, the user will only be able to see their screen name and not their score.
An example of scores and emojis in the Snapchat App.
And what about those spectacles?
One of the more recent updates are Snapchat Spectacles, which have recently become more widely available for purchase. The special sunglasses light up when they are in use, and users can tap the side to take photos, capture videos, and send Snaps. Using the sunglasses allows users to send Snaps that quite literally capture their own worldview.
In the end, Snapchat is simply a messaging tool that teens and young adults use to communicate, and parents need to take the time to learn and understand their children’s new language of socialization. If your kids are on Snapchat, you should be too. I encourage parents to download the app and put their kids in the driver’s seat and ask them to show you their favorite features. If they refuse to do so, you can always do what teenagers do to learn more about how to use something – search online and watch videos.
Ana Homayoun is a noted teen and millennial expert, author, speaker, and educator whose third book, Social Media Wellness: Helping Tween and Teens Thrive in an Unbalanced Digital World, is coming in August. She is the founder of Green Ivy Educational Consulting, a Silicon Valley-based educational consulting firm. Her first book, That Crumpled Paper Was Due Last Week: Helping Disorganized and Distracted Boys Succeed in School and Life (Penguin Random House/Perigee), quickly became a classic among parents and educators. Her next book, The Myth of the Perfect Girl: Helping Our Daughters Find Authentic Success and Happiness in School and Life (Penguin Random House/Perigee), explores the real-life dilemmas of young women today and provides strategies for finding authentic success and happiness. For more information, please visit: www.anahomayoun.com.